Web strategy workshop

Paul Boag with members of the Lean, web, digital communications and project management teams.

Paul Boag with members of the Lean, web, digital communications and project management teams.

A few weeks ago I mentioned that we had the go-ahead from the University’s ICT strategy group to work on a new web strategy. Yesterday we had our first meeting to begin to plan this in more detail.

Round the enormous, post-it note strewn table at Lean Central the web team met with Mark and Fin from the University Lean team, Duncan from the digital communications team, Rob (a business analyst), and external consultant Paul Boag of Headscape.

It was a good day, full of energy and enthusiasm, hope and possibility. There is still much to discuss and to work out but it was a good start.

Mental health in web development

HTML code with mental health class names

Back in November (21–22) 2013 I travelled to Dublin to TerminalFour‘s annual global user conference t44u at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin, Ireland. TerminalFour develop the web content management system that we use here at St Andrews: Site Manager, often simply referred to as T4.

This was the third or fourth event that I’d attended and was by far the most enjoyable for me, not least because we were located in a rugby stadium rather than a brewery. The last few conferences had been hosted at the Guinness storehouse… and I don’t drink alcohol (largely thanks to an inherited kidney disease). I was, however, brought up in the Scottish Borders where we do play rugby. A lot.

It was also, as promised, the most hands-on conference to date. One of the main focuses of the event was about unleashing Site Manager’s potential. You can view the mind maps I created, on Flickr (Thursday and Friday). There were sessions about content strategy; existing, new and future Site Manager features; platform as a service; mobile web and responsive web design; web search; and more than one presentation about novel ways of using Site Manager to edit and manage content, and quickly create new sites.

Christopher Murphy

The session that touched me the most, however, was the keynote talk by Christopher Murphy (@fehler on Twitter), an academic, writer and designer based in Belfast; he is one half of the Web Standardistas and now a volunteer with Prompt, an organisation with a remit of starting conversations about mental health in the technology industry.

His talk had me in tears, at one point, to be honest.

Christopher shared with us, at times with a lump in his throat and a pause or two to re-gather his composure, that on 21 May 2013—only six months before—he had found himself waking up in hospital. The day before Christopher had attempted to kill himself.

If I remember correctly, his wife had returned home, found him, called an ambulance and here he was now, lying in a hospital bed, ‘feeling exhausted, disorientated and ashamed’.

Over the next half an hour Christopher shared with us something of what had brought him to this the lowest point in his life: an unsustainable schedule of demands and responsibilities of writing and talking, teaching and supervising, designing and creating. He felt like life was out of control, and at his lowest ebb he saw only one way out which very nearly killed him.

Filled with remorse, Christopher resolved to do something about it. He began looking into what had led him to this point, he began to explore and understand the mechanics of the mind. Later he also decided to share some of what he had learned with the tech and web communities he was a part of; which is what brought him to be standing before us, laying himself bare and sharing something immensely personal with us.

(You can read Christopher Murphy’s very moving article on 24 ways: Managing a mind.)

Pace of change

Christopher touched on the “relentless pace of change” that we experience in the web development industry. Not that long ago it was enough to have a firm grasp of HTML and CSS, and a smattering of JavaScript and PHP to get you into the industry. But these days you can’t go two months without a new browser version being released, the specifications for HTML5 and CSS3 seem to be in continuous flux (did anyone else implement the <hgroup> tag only then to discover just months later that it had already been deprecated from HTML5?), then there is now Sass, and Less, and Stylus to help us with CSS production, we have Node and NPM, Grunt and Yeoman. All these things to supposedly make our lives easier, and yet somehow at the same time making things increasingly complex at best and unnecessarily anxious at worst. And what about PHP libraries, JavaScript frameworks, text editors, IDEs, new graphics formats like WebP? Where does it stop?

I have a constant gnawing feeling that I’m always behind with my skills. But where do you start? And as <hgroup> has proved, will what you learn already be out of date within the year?

Status anxiety and imposter syndrome

Christopher spent much of his talk speaking about two pressures in particular: status anxiety and imposter syndrome.

Status anxiety is “an anxiety about what others think of us; about whether we’re judged a success or a failure, a winner or a loser.” Imposter syndrome, he said, is far more widespread than you’d imagine. It is defined as “a fear that one is not as smart or capable as others think”. It’s a fear that one day you will be ‘found out’ by them, even though you don’t exactly know who ‘they’ are, or what exactly they will find out.

To be honest, I feel a combination of both these fears almost every time I have to visit the systems team. “They must think that I’m an idiot for not knowing this,” I find myself saying inside my head. But why?! Server configuration and administration aren’t my specialities or responsibilities. I’m going to ask for their expertise and advice to help me complete a particular task. But I still beat myself up a bit about it if I’m not careful.

Mental Ill-health

Why does mental ill-health still carry such a stigma? Clearly there is an element of fear involved, and labels such as ‘psycho’, ‘nutter’, and ‘loony’ don’t help, but not every case of mental ill-health is as extreme as psychosis, schizophrenia, or personality disorder. Mental ill-health symptoms can include:

  • Feeling sad or down.
  • Confused thinking or reduced ability to concentrate.
  • Excessive worries.
  • Withdrawal from friends or activities.
  • Inability to cope with daily problems or stresses.
  • Significant tiredness.
  • Sleeping problems.

I don’t know anyone who hasn’t experienced some of these symptoms at least once in their life. We don’t give people grief for catching a cold or a tummy bug, or if they break their leg. We don’t blame them in the same way that I’ve heard people with mental ill-health blamed: “Well, it must be his own fault for catching that common cold! He should have prevented it!”

What nonsense! That doesn’t help anyone.

Depression

After my dad died in 1998 I got really depressed. Everyone could see it, apart from me. My GP wanted to put me on anti-depressants; I couldn’t see why, so I refused. But my days were bleak. I couldn’t see a point in anything.

“Why should I do this or that… I’m going to die in the end, so what’s the point?” That was the conversation in my head most of the time.

It was actually getting involved in web development that helped pull me slowly out of that quagmire. It offered me a way to express myself and to be creative. It was something that didn’t require me to work with other people if I didn’t want to, and to collaborate with others when I did. For me it worked. It was a lifeline, and after seven years I moved into web development full-time.

Parenthood

My most recent and sustained experience of what must surely fall under the umbrella of mental ill-health has been parenthood. I have twin boys (5) and a singleton (3). It is getting easier now; and if not easier then it is definitely getting different.

I’ve spent much of the last 4–5 years in a state of constant exhaustion and sleep deprivation. At times I’ve found it difficult to concentrate. There have been days when it has felt as though my thoughts were literally falling out of my head. I had to write everything down and schedule every piece of work in my Outlook calendar so that I could remember—even mid-task—what I was supposed to be working on.

I had a constant headache for four months a few years ago. I thought there was something wrong with me! Well, there was: I wasn’t getting enough sleep. Some nights my boys were awake every 15 minutes. And I only know that because we kept notebooks to record everything that happened, who had been fed/changed/medicated and by whom, otherwise we couldn’t remember from hour to hour.

I’ve not heard many people referring to those first few years of parenthood as a period of mental ill-health, but it definitely is. I experienced every one of those symptoms in the list above. I do feel like a stronger person for having gotten through it, but damn! that was hard, really hard.

And now…?

I was really pleased that Christopher Murphy talked about this whole topic at T44U. I’m glad there are organisations like Prompt and discussion boards like Devpressed that raise these issues within the industry and offer support.

I don’t have an answer, but I do know that stigma and blame don’t help. As a web industry we need to keep talking about this more openly. We need to let people know that it’s okay to talk about it.

People, it’s okay to talk about it!

Just like that.

Job vacancy: web developer

Spanner lying on a laptop keyboard

The University is looking for a web developer to join the web team.

  • Job reference: Web Developer SB1005R1
  • Salary £25,013 – £29,837 per annum (grade 5)
  • Required skills: PHP, JavaScript/jQuery, HTML, CSS, SQL, Ajax
  • Fixed term: 3 years
  • Start: as soon as possible
  • Closing date for applications: Friday 25 April 2014

The main purpose of the role will be in helping maintain and support web services, notably where changes need to be made to coding and other infrastructure elements, so a solid and demonstrable knowledge of PHP, MySQL, JavaScript, HTML and CSS is required. Experience of WordPress (including WordPress Multi Site) will also be of an advantage.

Our enterprise web content management system is the commercial, Java-based TerminalFour Site Manager (although we’ve never had to dabble with any Java) running on an Oracle database; and we’re working a lot with WordPress (and MySQL) too these days (both stand-alone installations and WordPress Multi Site). Pre-knowledge of either is not required as training will be offered.

Regarding existing technologies, we’re currently using an adapted version of the Blueprint CSS framework and a patchwork of jQuery plugins, but we have plans to move to the Bootstrap framework, the Sass CSS pre-processor and a host of other time-saving goodies. We currently don’t use any particular PHP framework, although PHPMaker has been used to help generate a few applications; that’s not to say that we’re not option to the adoption of a PHP framework. We often use Agile methodologies in our project work and use Trello to keep ourselves organised.

It’s not all about hardcore coding, however. An important element of the job will be to deal with website users and content creators in a support and perhaps even training role. The web team offers first, second and third line support, and you will be expected to get involved there too.

The web team is currently made up of four members (web manager, web architect, web editor and web apprentice) with a fifth member on secondment to Corporate Communications. Speaking as someone who is obviously somewhat biased, the web team is a good, fun and supportive place to work. Do you fancy joining us?

More details can be found on the University’s job vacancy website — the job reference code is SB1005R1.

Job vacancies: Web Designer and Web Copywriter

West Sands, St Andrews

The University of St Andrews is looking for an experienced web designer and an experienced web copywriter to join a small start-up team supporting the marketing of the University.

The posts will sit within Corporate Communications, which has responsibility for enhancing and protecting the global reputation and brand of the University of St Andrews via the delivery of consistent, high quality communications support and services.

It is currently working closely with Admissions and IT Services to re-orientate the focus, design and content of the Admissions web presence, as the pre-cursor to wider change and improvement across the majority of St Andrews’ externally facing webpages. These posts will be integral to the success of the Admissions project, and the longer term review of the University website.

  • Corporate Communications
  • Salary: £24,766 – £29,541 per annum
  • Fixed term: 3 years
  • Start date: As soon as possible

Web Designer

The ideal candidate will be required to create user-centred web designs. The candidate must have strong expertise in user experience and / or interaction design development. Knowledge of web standards and accessibility requirements is essential. The candidate will be able to work with software developers, and should have knowledge of working with responsive web design compatible with a wide range of devices including desktop computers, mobile devices and assistive technologies. The candidate will maintain a keen interest in web usage and technology trends and be able to apply appropriately.

A good eye for visual design, ability to follow corporate identity guidelines and a strong attention to detail are all desirable.

Further particulars and how to apply →


Web Copywriter

We are looking to appoint an experienced Web Copywriter to create engaging web content (text, images, audio and video) to ensure that we present the best first impression of the University.

The ideal candidate should have excellent writing skills, with particular expertise in writing for the web, and experience working with and implementing workflow processes. The candidate should be able to convey complex information in a clear, concise and engaging manner, for a variety of audiences. An understanding of accessibility requirements and search engine optimisation would be desirable. The candidate should also have a familiarity with working with media formats for the web (images, video and audio).

Further particulars and how to apply →

Job vacancy: web developer

Spanner lying on a laptop keyboard

The University is looking for an experienced web developer to join the web team.

  • Grade: 5
  • Salary: £24, 766 — £29,541 per year
  • Fixed term: 3 years
  • Start: as soon as possible
  • Closing date for applications: Friday 19 July 2013

The main focus of the job will be in helping design and develop small-scale web applications, and add additional functionality to existing pages/websites so a solid and demonstrable knowledge of HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and PHP is required.

Our enterprise web content management system is the commercial, Java-based TerminalFour Site Manager (although we’ve never had to dabble with any Java) running on an Oracle database; and we’re working a lot with WordPress (and MySQL) too these days (both stand-alone installations and WordPress multisite). Pre-knowledge of either is not required as training will be offered.

We’re currently using an adapted version of the Blueprint CSS framework and a patchwork of jQuery plugins, but we have plans to move to the Bootstrap framework, the LESS CSS pre-processor and a host of other Node.js enabled time-saving goodies. We currently don’t use any particular PHP framework, although PHPMaker has been used to help generate a few applications; that’s not to say that we’re not option to the adoption of a PHP framework. We often use Agile methodologies in our project work and use Trello to keep ourselves organised.

It’s not all about hardcore coding, however. An important element of the job will be to deal with website users and content creators in a support and perhaps even training role. The web team offers first, second and third line support, and you will be expected to get involved there too.

The web team is currently made up of four members (web manager, web architect, web editor and web apprentice) with a fifth member on secondment to Corporate Communications for 18 months. Speaking as someone who is obviously somewhat biased, the web team is a good, fun and supportive place to work. Do you fancy joining us?

More details can be found on the University’s job vacancy website – the job reference code is SB1005.

A change in role

Chocolate chip cookies

This month, I have begun a secondment to Admissions. I will still be working on web projects. But my focus for the next 18 months will be on webpages for Admissions and Corporate Communications.

From my point of view, there are a few different motivations behind the move.

  1. After over three great years working as part of the web team, I felt like it was time to try something new.
  2. The Admissions project will give me the chance to sink my teeth into an important project, which is quite exciting. Being seconded to Admissions will give me the space required to push on without being diverted.
  3. The coffee at St Katharine’s West is nicer.

Progress so far

For the past few months, I have been participating in Lean sessions with a group of staff from Admissions and the wider University community. We were only able to meet for a total of five days spread across roughly as many weeks. Despite the stop-start nature of our meetings, I think the results of them have been very good. Together, we have come up with the foundations of a strong information architecture, and some great ideas on functionality.

Over the years I have been involved in a few different sessions looking at information architecture with different departments. Often, such sessions run into problems. Many people become fixated on their own small sections of the website, at the expense of the bigger picture. Worse still, some try to structure a website based on the structure of the organisation, even if this would be confusing to the user.

Thankfully, the Admissions Lean group has (for the most part) avoided these pitfalls. There is strong agreement within the group that webpages should be user-centred, and that we should avoid imposing University structures or jargon on anyone that doesn’t need to know it.

I have really enjoyed participating in these Lean sessions. They avoid the need to get too bogged down in rigid processes. They also provide the scope and freedom to come up with creative solutions, without too many cheesy appeals for blue sky thinking.

For these reasons, I am excited to be working on the Admissions web project, and optimistic about what we can achieve.

Essential web developer skills

Lazy man sitting on a sofa

Lazy Guy photo by David Clark (iStockphoto)

In the next few months we’re going to be gearing up to fill two posts (one replacement and one new post) to join the web team: a developer and an apprentice. So I’ve been thinking about a couple of things:

  1. What skills we are looking for in new team members?
  2. What skills do we already have that we’re maybe not using to their best potential within the team, or which have become a little sloppy and undisciplined that we need to work on.

I liked this comment in an article by Dan Frost on .net; it is point 6:

That search for ‘essential web developer skills’ brings a nice answer from Michael Greer (The Onion’s CTO) on Quora:

Laziness:
Refuses to do anything twice: writes a script or algo[rithim] for it.
Cowardice:
Thinks to test, worries over load and code impact.
Recklessness:
Tries new stuff constantly, launches same-day ideas.
Cowardice is a nice way of phrasing ‘attention to detail’.

“10 things web developers must know to become truly amazing” on .net

I remember a conversation years ago with an architect who said that he valued lazy people, because they showed him how to do things with the least amount of effort. It was from him that I also learned about cowpaths (“look where the paths are already being formed by behaviour and then formalize them”).

I like how Greer put it: refuse to do anything twice. Don’t repeat yourself; the DRY principle. Use frameworks, save snippets of code that you use often (my coding editor allows me to collect code snippets in an in-built library), don’t reinvent the wheel again and again.

T4 Site Manager and writing for the web training sessions

We are now making a more concerted effort to provide training to our users on a more regular basis.

TerminalFour Site Manager

T4 Site Manager training will now be held monthly.

This session gives an overview of Site Manager and how to add and edit content. It is intended for those who have not used Site Manager before, or for those who would like a refresher.

The next sessions will be held on the following dates:

  • Monday 12 March 2012 — 2pm to 5pm
  • Monday 16 April 2012 — 2pm to 5pm
  • Monday 14 May 2012 — 2pm to 5pm
  • Monday 11 June 2012 — 2pm to 5pm

Book a place on a T4 Site Manager training session using PDMS.

Training takes place in the Swallowgate PC classroom, on the corner of Butts Wynd and The Scores (view map).

Writing for the web

For the first time, we will also now be offering regular writing for the web training sessions.

When writing for the web your content needs to be concise and scannable. Users find it harder to read from a screen than from paper, so special techniques are required to ensure that your message gets across on the web. We need to write our content in such a way that we help users find the information they are looking for as quickly as possible.

We have become increasingly aware that the quality of content on the University website can vary greatly. By offering users the opportunity to learn about the techniques required to write suitably for the web, we hope to help improve the quality of the website.

These sessions will also run monthly. The next few sessions will be on the following dates:

  • Monday 26 March 2012 — 2pm to 5pm
  • Monday 30 April 2012 — 2pm to 5pm
  • Monday 28 May 2012 — 2pm to 5pm
  • Monday 25 June 2012 — 2pm to 5pm

Book a place on a writing for the web training session using PDMS.

Training takes place in the Swallowgate PC classroom, on the corner of Butts Wynd and The Scores (view map).

Web team clinic

We are also continuing to run the monthly web team clinic. If you have any queries on anything to do with the web, we are here to help.

The clinic runs on the second Friday of every month, from 12 noon until 2pm. The next few clinics will be on the following dates:

  • Friday 9 March 2012 — 12 noon to 2pm
  • Friday 13 April 2012 — 12 noon to 2pm
  • Friday 11 May 2012 — 12 noon to 2pm
  • Friday 8 June 2012 — 12 noon to 2pm

Book a slot on a web team clinic using PDMS.

The web team clinic takes place at web team HQ, room 6 in Butts Wynd Building.